The chef de cuisine of Corn Maiden restaurant near Santa Fe dispels some myths and misconceptions of working with chiles—while talking up their strategic use as a flavor enhancer—in menu development.
By Samuel Reed
Chefs are always looking for ways to make their specialty dishes different from those of others, with unique tastes, textures and ingredients that will enhance the dining experience and leave a lasting impression on their guests. As chile peppers are in peak season, the traditional staple of red and green chiles can provide a unique twist and satisfying flavor to a variety of different meals. Although the chile pepper is very versatile and can be used for several purposes, there are many misconceptions in the culinary industry about how chiles should be used.
One of the most common misconceptions about cooking with chile peppers is that they are used specifically to “spice up” or add heat to a dish. On the contrary, a chile pepper should be used to enhance and highlight the individual flavors of each meal. A mild green chile, for instance, can make an impactful addition to most any dish by complementing the ingredients with its mild, yet unique, flavor—all while not overwhelming the diner with an unpleasant heat intensity.
Part of the capsicum vegetable family, chile peppers range from the sweet and mild bell pepper to more spicy red and green chiles. When selecting any chile, it is important to be aware of its potential heat. The chile peppers commonly found in New Mexico, for example, vary on the Scoville Scale with rankings between 500 and 1,000, and can be found in several different heat classifications ranging from very mild to extremely hot.
It is also important while cooking with chile peppers to create a heat intensity that will balance and complement, not mask, the flavor of a dish. Although personally experimenting with each batch of chiles is the best way to determine a chile’s heat intensity and how to match that with other ingredients, there are a few tips to consider in order to obtain the ideal balance.
When using a very spicy pepper, pairing the chile with an ingredient that will offset the heat works well to create a balanced flavor. For instance, the Corn Maiden restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa uses a very powerful pepper, the habanero, in its scallop dish while incorporating a fresh peach mixture. Although the thought of using such a powerful pepper can even intimidate professionals, the incorporation of a fresh fruit item helps to counteract extreme heat and works to provide a pleasant and unique mélange of flavors.
Another way to control the heat of a specific chile is the proper cleaning and preparation of the pepper. The heat of a chile is created by the capsaicin, which is found in the membrane that surrounds the seeds on the inner part of the chile. By cleaning out the membrane and seeds from the chile’s interior, you can create a less-intense heat while preserving the flavor.
From pairing a chile with an elegant chocolate dessert to using it as an accent to a traditional New Mexico-inspired plate, there are many ways to use chiles to satisfy every palate. Always remember that adding spice and heat can be complementary to many dishes, but it is important to not mask the unique flavor of the ingredients—and the chile itself—with an intense spice. Diners are sure to appreciate the achievement of the ideal flavor and heat balance.
Samuel Reed is the chef de cuisine at the Corn Maiden restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa near Santa Fe, N.M.
Caption: © Ryan Bushby | Dreamstime.com, http://www.dreamstime.com/free-stock-photography-hot-pepper-mix-rimagefree2217775-resi1793763.